Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) was America’s first mass media celebrity.
Today, unfortunately, we live in an era of numerous self-promoted media “experts” who spread misinformation, conspiracy theories and, often, bold-faced lies. The advent of the digital world, along with its wonderful capabilities to provide useful information and connect people and families, has exacerbated the problem of unreliable news sources. Anyone with internet access can create a media outlet: Deep knowledge of a topic or accurate reporting are not prerequisites.
Worse, many of these media “talking heads” not only spread falsehoods and ignorance, but they also promote hate, including virulent antisemitism. Although the new media forces of the digital age may seem novel and unprecedented, they are not. An outstanding new podcast, “Radioactive: The Father Coughlin Story,” from Tablet Magazine reminded me of this fact.
Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) was America’s first mass media celebrity. He is also, as University of Michigan Sociologist Donald I. Warren succinctly wrote, the “Father of Hate Radio.” Indeed, the roots of today’s media miscreants can be traced to Coughlin’s radio show in the 1930s when tens of millions listened to his broadcasts every week.
An ordained Catholic priest, Coughlin was on the faculty at Assumption College (now, university) in Windsor, Ontario, 1916-1923. Detroit Bishop Michael Gallagher gave him an opportunity to establish a new parish, now the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak. Through massive donations via his radio appeals, Coughlin built the Shrine into a magnificent structure on Woodward Avenue. Although building a religious shrine may seem like a somewhat noble cause, this one has a very dark underside.
Coughlin made his first radio appearance in 1926. This was just six years after the first regularly scheduled radio programming in history. By 1930, Coughlin had a huge national audience. Although his initial broadcasts focused upon Catholic education, he soon became political. Coughlin claimed — like many media personalities today — to speak for the “common” folks. In 1935, he formed the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ). It soon had 1 million members and, in 1936, begin publishing Social Justice as a vehicle for his viewpoint.
Coughlin was staunchly anticommunist and, as the years passed, increasingly antisemitic. He cited Jewish “financiers” as dominating the world’s economy and as instigators of World War II. Coughlin praised Adolf Hitler, defended the Nazi violence of Kristallnacht and published his own version of the Protocols of Zion. Finally, in 1942, after America’s entry into WWII and a federal investigation, Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney forced Coughlin to cease non-congregational activities. Coughlin continued his work at the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966.
Coughlin has a large presence in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, appearing on 476 pages. Perhaps the best indication of how Coughlin vexed Detroit’s Jewish community is that reports about him appeared on 53 front pages, with headlines like: “Columnists and Editors Join in Condemning Rev. Coughlin’s Attacks on the Jewish People” (Dec. 9, 1938, Chronicle), “Father Coughlin Preaching Hate…” (June 2, 1939, Chronicle) and “Rabbis Charge Father Coughlin is Exploiting ‘Social Justice’ Term” (June 23, 1939, Chronicle), to name just a few.
The “Radio Priest” generated a massive audience. It’s too bad he chose to set a precedent of spreading hate instead of promoting good. This is a history we should not forget.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at